There was once a woman wearing a hijab who was doing her weekly grocery shopping at her usual grocery store near her home. As she headed down the detergent aisle, a couple of middle-age white men made angry comments about her religion and ended with an obscenity to describe the woman and others of her religion. The woman went to the customer service counter and said, “I’m not done shopping,” she told him, “but I don’t feel safe here.” The assistant manager told her he would protect her. For the next half-hour, he walked alongside her pretending to check inventory as she did the rest of her shopping. When asked about his actions, he said, “I was just doing my job.” (Read the whole story by New York Times religion writer, Samuel G. Freedman.)
A few reflections:
1. In these times, we are told to be vigilant for things that are out of the ordinary. If you see someone suspicious, call the authorities. When we’re cautioned so often to look for the suspicious, does every stranger begin to look suspicious?
2. Maybe we should be more vigilant for someone who needs a helping hand or a gesture of kindness. Maybe we should be more vigilant for instances of hatred and discrimination and when we see them, call them out. We could use more expressions of our common humanity.
3. I don’t know what it’s like to walk into a grocery store and be harassed. Worse, I never even have to think about it. I don’t have to worry about the management following me around on the assumption that I’m a criminal. I don’t have to worry about hate speech directed towards me because of my religion. I don’t have to wonder what kind of ogling I might be subject to. I never give a thought to my safety when grocery shopping. The very structures of our society are programmed to make me feel safe. Mostly I don’t even see it. That’s privilege.
4. I love the assistant manager’s words when asked why he did it. “I was just doing my job.” He didn’t ask permission or look for adulation. He was just being neighborly. Showing basic kindness and compassion. And he didn’t, apparently, think about it. Jesus once asked his disciples why they were looking for reward for following him. They were, he said, just doing what they were supposed to. “I was just doing my job.”
In my Christian belief system, God has called me into the circle of God’s love and transformed me. God has made me part of a community that is to be good news for the world. Being good news for the world is not so much about having the right answers, but about being God’s loving presence. To be God’s loving presence is not that complicated. It may be hard, it may take patience, it requires persistence, it is undoubtedly counter cultural. But at it’s heart, it’s not that complicated. Exercise kindness; be neighborly; assume a shared common humanity in the midst of the differences.
That assistant manager? His name is Mark Egan. If God is at work bringing the peaceable kingdom — and I believe God is — Mr. Egan has given us a glimpse of what that might look like.